Is Remote Work More Stressful than Office Work?
- The rapid shift to work from home has caused stress levels to increase among a sizeable share of employees.
- Remote work might be stressful due to factors such as a higher degree of autonomy, reduced social interaction, and sudden changes in routine.
- At the same time, remote work has increased the productivity of employees. Among the reasons for this is less time wasted on commuting, fewer breaks during working time, and fewer distractions out of office.
- Employers can mitigate remote worker stress by taking decisive actions such as 1) modifying their corporate culture, benefits program, and general policies to accommodate hybrid work; and 2) providing adequate, reliable, and sustainable technology support that enhances long-distance communication and collaboration.
The transition from traditional office to remote operations hasn’t been smooth for everyone. Research into remote work has found that it actually increases productivity (more below), but many will also agree that some aspects of remote employment are stressful.
Read on to find out how exactly this is the case.
Why Remote Work Might Be Stressful
Mental health among remote workers has been studied quite substantially – both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the most notable studies of this topic have been carried out by the International Labour Organization (ILO, a United Nations agency) in 2017 and Qualtrics in April 2020. Meanwhile, productivity issues such as distractions, isolation, and the technology implications of hybrid work have been studied more recently by employment websites and professional development companies, including Indeed and Training Magazine as the pandemic drove more and more people to leave their physical workplaces to instead work from home.
All in all, based on the findings of these studies and our own intuition, remote work might be more stressful than office work because of:
1. Tech-related issues. Switching to home offices, many people had to tackle corporate software installation and setup for the very first time. Less tech-savvy users often struggle with such new tasks.
In some cases, remote workers might also be obligated to shoulder the cost of acquiring new equipment such as laptops, headsets, webcams, various software (for timekeeping, monitoring, productivity, etc.), and even a few furnishings (desk, chair, etc.) to set-up a home office/workstation.
Unstable and choppy internet connection will definitely cause an inordinate amount of worker stress because the Internet serves as the base technology for remote work. Inconsistent internet connectivity leads to poor audio/video quality as well as slow upload/download speeds.
Finally, data security constitutes a real risk for both the remote worker and the employer given that remote computing – especially when done via unprotected devices using public WiFi – is a known attack vector. Proactive businesses invest in fixing security loopholes via effective firewalls, antivirus software, disaster recovery, VPNs, and other cyber security measures.
2. Increased delays/Productivity leakage. While productivity uplift has been reported by personnel who work from home, there’s also a downside to remote work. Receiving assistance and guidance over the web implies some delays. Since employees are no longer working within a shared physical environment, their activities can get out of sync with each other. Without access to the office, there are fewer options for continuing productive work until help is received.
Some remote teams might also experience an increased need for virtual meetings, especially when leaders and managers have been used to keeping tabs on everyone or micromanaging projects. Unfortunately, frequent online meetings can disrupt work and even become a source of frustration among remote workers.
3. Isolation/Missing the camaraderie. Some employees miss the social aspect of on-premises operations. Humans need to socialise with each other and being deprived of meaningful human contact for protracted periods can lead to loneliness and depression. This sense of isolation is especially true among remote workers who live alone and who spend the majority of their days working on tasks independently. To address the risk, employers can set regular team meetings and events that are not purely work-related but geared towards socialization and bond-building conversations.
Productivity-wise working from home can lead to a disconnect with people who can readily provide insights, tips, information, or skills as soon as you physically walk towards their desks and ask for help. This loss of a major resource can be damaging for people who thrive in person-to-person engagements and casual collaboration over a cup of coffee or lunch.
4. No breaks from home issues. For some people, their workplace may be a sanctuary from stressful home life. By blurring the boundaries between life and work, remote work takes away the breathing space that employees may desperately need. What remote workers can do instead is to build a schedule that clearly delineates work hours and personal time, then inform both co-workers and house members about the schedule. Not doing so can lead to an overlap between home and work and you might end up rendering far too many or far too few work hours than are required. Privacy and confidentiality are also issues that inevitably arise as the trend for hybrid work rises. Monitors and device screens may inadvertently show private or confidential material while an employee is working from home. Employers should have a clear policy on how to handle such scenarios.
5. Constant working. Remote work is often associated with longer working hours and constant availability for assignments. This could mean that remote workers don’t ever truly get a chance to rest from their jobs. Remember, while increased productivity is a recognized remote-work benefit, doubling down on this advantage can lead to burnout. Unless employers adopt best practices via technologies such as remote staff monitoring tools as well as activity and time trackers, remote workers will be likelier to render work hours well above or below the standard work day. For workers, on the other hand, having a hard schedule and a dedicated home office or workstation can do wonders.
6. Distractions at home/Loss of focus. For some workers, excessive freedom to move around and take breaks any time can erode discipline, focus, and good time management. Lack of physical supervision can also leads some employees to slack off and get diverted by different types of distractions. This, in turn will negatively impact productivity. Television, mobile phones, kids, video games, pets, and household chores can become major distractions that chip away the full attention workers need to complete tasks and deliver excellent work.
7. Higher degree of autonomy/Fear of being accused as a slacker. Remote workers have a higher degree of autonomy at their home offices. Without direct supervision, workers need to make some decisions on their own, which adds a degree of uncertainty (and the level of stress associated with it) to their daily operations. In addition, the fear and potential shame at being accused of slacking at work is ever present without the proper remote staff monitoring tools. (On the flipside, not everyone enjoys being closely monitored and scrutinized at home).
8. Changes in routine. Initially, changes in routine and the need to handle customary tasks and processes differently may stress some workers out. Employees who have thrived after spending much time building and iterating efficient systems for their on-site workflow may experience some frustration at the need to develop new systems for a hybrid or full-time work-at-home environment.
According to the ILO, 41% of mobile remote workers – that is, people working from various locations, not just their homes – feel stressed most of the time, whereas about 22% feel “always stressed”. For comparison, only about 25% of office workers feel stressed most of the time, and between 8-9% are always stressed.
For regular home-based work, about 31% of employees feel stressed most of the time, and about 13% are always stressed. And among occasional remote workers, the stress rates are about 33% and 11% respectively.
Qualtrics shares that 44.4% of remote workers have experienced mental health deterioration since the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, all echelons of employees have been impacted – C-level employees (40.5%), managers (40.1%), and individual contributors (44%).
The Undeniable Benefits of Remote Work
The rapid shift to remote operations has been stressful for both employees and employers. For those who strongly prefer direct supervision and interaction with their peers, remote work may seem daunting even months after a transition.
Still, remote work undeniably has some significant advantages over traditional office work. First and foremost, this pertains to productivity.
Hubstaff – a producer of staff monitoring software – shares a few interesting stats on the productivity of remote workers:
- Remote teams tend to perform better. A 2013 study by Stanford University professor Nicholas Bloom and other scholars found that working from home increased performance by 13% over 9 months.
- 65% of workers report that they feel more productive out of the office.
- 86% of employees who have been productive while working remotely rate their productivity either good or excellent.
- 76% of remote workers claim that they’re more productive thanks to fewer distractions, while 62% attribute the increased productivity to a quieter work environment.
- When remote workers get sick, they are likely to continue working anyway.
- Remote workers put in an extra 1.4 days of work more than office workers every month.
Meanwhile, Cisco’s Global Hybrid Work Study 2022 reveals that work performance, well-being, work-life balance, relationships, and even personal confidence have improved among employees across different age groups, gender, and seniority. The study, which involved 28,000 full-time workers across 27 markets, also yielded the following interesting figures driven largely by hybrid work: : 76% have saved money; 68% believed they have become more physically fit; 74% said their family relationships improved; 82% said they are happier and more motivated; and, 55% reported decreased stress levels.
Aside from these, we can point out the following benefits of remote operation:
- Flexible start and stop times. You may choose when to start working and when to take a break. In fact, according to the ILO, remote workers find it easier to take time off during working hours than office workers. Around 75% of men and 72% of women working from home reported that taking a break is “very” or “fairly” easy, whereas for office workers, the rates were 62% and 57% respectively.
- No need to travel. Remote workers do not need to travel to carry out their duties. The reduced need to travel is convenient by itself, but it may also increase employee productivity. The ILO cites a French study that has found out that remote workers work more due to the reduced time spent on commuting to and from work (an average of 1.38 hours).
- More time with family. Remote workers get to spend much more time with their families. According to the ILO, 38% of men and women working from home found that their working hours fit their family or social commitments very well – versus 28% of male and 30% of female office workers.
- Access to all the necessary toolsets. On top of the previous benefits but contingent on the employers’ technology partners, remote work allows employees to get access to their work resources (particularly productivity, communication and collaboration tools) no matter where they are.
How to manage the stress
Check out these guides to reducing the stress of working at home and getting the best out of remote work:
- 23 Essential Tips for Working Remotely. Inc.com. – This guide offers morale boosters and self-care tips.
- 20 Tips for Working From Home: How To Be Productive Outside the Office. Indeed. – This guide – developed by one of the most popular job websites on the planet – tells you how to be productive working from home.
- 20 Tips for Working from Home. PCMag.com. – This guide includes great advice on how to beef up security for remote work.
- The Ultimate Guide to Working From Home. Investopedia. – In addition to providing remote work tips, this guide also features common job opportunities and roles that thrive in a remote environment.
- 32 Working from Home Tips You Can Do Right Now (Updated). Nextiva. – This guide includes a bunch of easy-to-have stress relievers.
- How to Work From Home: 24 Tips From People Who Do It Successfully. HubSpot. – This guide is a compilation of tried & tested techniques from actual remote workers (including top executives, entrepreneurs, and career professionals) who shared their favourite tips.
- Making Hybrid Work More Permanent? Set Some Ground Rules. Gartner. – This guide provides operational advice to businesses and organisations on how to manage and reduce the anxieties of their remote and hybrid workforce.
Remote Work is likely to stay beyond 2022
Remote work has both positive and negative aspects. On one hand, the rapid changes in one’s work environment and increased autonomy may cause stress. On the other, workers gain more control over their schedules.
Computer One itself has witnessed a mass exodus of employees from offices. Not everybody will come back onsite even after the pandemic ends. According to a global survey of 9000 knowledge workers conducted by Slack, only 12% of people want to return to office work as they knew it before, while 72% want a hybrid model combining office and remote operations. Gartner agrees. According to the global research and consulting firm, 25% of the global knowledge workforce will choose their home as their principal place of work, while 45% of the entire labour force will be working remotely two to three days per week.
Regardless of the pros and cons, the world of work will forever be changed post pandemic.
As a consequence, organisations and businesses that adapt faster and better will thrive in the new economy. Because remote work requires secure and reliable networks that facilitate long-distance communication and collaboration among offices, workplaces, and remote workers, choosing managed IT services providers (MSPs) has become an important strategic decision for your firm.
Is your company prepared to support tomorrow’s workforce?
Running and sustaining a hybrid workforce starts with making smart investments in an overall IT infrastructure that purposely supports remote work. Your IT infrastructure is the sum total of your in-house and outsourced hardware, software, processes, systems, and networks that help facilitate both your core business and non-core operations.
Note that the vast majority (77%) of employees rated technology support as a top priority for success in a remote work environment. Obviously, your role as employer is to provide such support with as much reliability, security, and cost-efficiency as possible.
Consider virtual meetings, omni-channel communication, and remote collaboration. These are the nuts-and-bolts of remote work. Are your tools for these processes adequate and sustainable?
There is no going back to the old way simply because hybrid work has already become the new normal. Pre-empted by the pandemic and coming sooner than most businesses expected, working from home evidently works for your teams. But does it work for your business? Only one in four employees believe their company is “very prepared” for the workplace of tomorrow. Is your company that one singular outlier? If not, reduce your remote workers’ stress levels by future-proofing your hybrid work strategy.
Amid all the technologies that make hybrid work possible, skills are skills regardless of the location they are practiced. And in the new normal, work will be defined by what employees do, not by where they are.